The Riddle of America

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search




I take the liberty of beginning this paper with a preface of a personal character. Seven years ago I had the honor of giving in Paris a series of lectures on the Emperor Augustus. How has it come about that after seven years the historian of Rome should write an essay on the two worlds of the present day, and discuss America as a European sees it? For this change of subject the Parisian public is in a measure responsible. The sympathy which my audience was kind enough to accord to my former studies encouraged a distinguished citizen of Argentina, M. Emilio Mitre, to invite me to Buenos Ayres. This first invitation was followed by two others: one, from the Brazilian Academy, and one from Mr. Roosevelt. Thus it came that the historian or antiquity had an opportunity to visit the wilderness of America. I say 'wilderness,' for to the yes of the European who travels its immensities by rail, America gives the impression of a far-reaching solitude.

In Argentina there are vast and luxuriant valleys, over which the train seems to creep towards the very edge of a horizon which ever recedes as the traveler advances: from time to time, four or five red one-storied houses, clustered behind a station, recall to his mind the fact that this wilderness is

1Copyright, 1913, by the Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights of translation and reproduction expressly reserved. Copyright also in France and Great Britain.

actually inhabited. In Brazil, so far as the eye can see, there are ranges of mountains, shadowy even in brilliant daylight, int he midst of which one notices, from time to time, a mountain standing out more distinctly than its mates. The shadowy hills are those still covered by the primeval forest; the others, those were the timber has been burned off and replaced by coffee plantations; but even here there is no trace of human life. One must travel long hours by railroad before even catching sight of a village.

In North America, or at least in its Eastern States, there are vast and desolate tracts. From time to time a village appears, bristling with chimneys. Then the traveler slips on into the deserted country. Another village appears, disappears. Then all at once the train begins to rush through the midst of houses. On, on it goes. The houses never cease to follow it. Huge edifices rise from the midst of the little dwellings like giants in a crowd of dwarfs. Automobiles and trolley cars move through the streets. It is a great city; half a million, a million, two million men are crowded together in the shadow of a thousand chimneys, surrounded on every side by an almost deserted country. What a strange sight are these wildernesses to a European accustomed to live in one of the crowded countries of the Old World where men have built their houses everywhere, from the shores of the sea up to the highest habitable slopes of the mountains!

In observing a phenomenon so nvoel to himself the historian of antiquity is deeply interested; and as he studies it, like so many other Europeans in the presence of the same spectacle, he forgets his own preoccupations. The riddle of America rises before him and the desire of finding an answer to it turns him from his former studies. For America is a true riddle to Europeans. These thirty years not only the United States, but even smaller American countries like Brazil and Argentina, have impressed themselves sharply upon the attention of Europe. The Old World has been compelled to recognize that America has in her turn become a mighty historic force; and that she exercises an influence on the Old World which grows continuously greater. When one reflects that only a century and a half ago all these American states were merely poverty-stricken colonies of Europe, harshly exploited by their European masters, one cannot suppress amazement at the rapidity with which their destiny has changed.

What power is it which has worked this species of miracle? ON this point it is impossible to feel any doubt: the power is riches. These plains and these mountains which look so deserted are tilled, mined, worked with intensest energy; and every year with a generosity which seems inexhaustible they yield to the men who have toiled over them prodigious quantities of cereals, tobacco, coffee, wool, gold, silver, iron, oil, - an enormous river of riches which spreads over the entire world. The great industrial cities of North America manufacture these raw materials with profits so large and swiftly won that to the Old World they seem fantastic. In these plains, in these valleys, in these mountains, in these cities, laborers receive higher wages, merchant and manufacturer make their fortunes faster, capitalists come into contact with mightier interests, landlords draw higher rents from this prosperity, - all the sources of profit are more abundant than in Europe. And these conditions have made it possible for a few of Fortune's favorites to pile up in the course of a single lifetime wealth whose vastness makes the brain swim. America has, in fact, succeeded in producing riches at a rate of speed that man has never yet attained elsewhere in the world. She has been the principal factor in the fabulous increase of the world's wealth during the last fifty years. Her riches have become one of the historic forces of our civilization, and one of the principal preoccupations of the European mind.

Whence come these vast riches and whither do they go? How is it that America can grow rich so much faster than Europe? Is it thanks to far more fortunate physical conditions which bear no relation to the deserts of man? Or is it in consequence of moral and intellectual qualities which are lacking in Europeans? And what will be the ultimate effect of this economic superiority? Riches may be the goal of an individual's efforts; for a nation they can only be a means to conquer the other good things of life which we call civilization: glory, grandeur, power, beauty, knowledge, moral refinement. Can America, and will she, make use of her riches to rob us of the intellectual and moral leadership which Europe still possesses? Or will these riches, too swiftly won, exercise an evil influence simultaneously upon Europe and America, by making both continents more grossly materialistic?


Such is the riddle of America which for some time past has been steadily gaining upon the attention of Europe. To reach the answer we must know whether the too swift economic development of the New World wields a beneficent or an evil influence upon the higher activities of the mind, upon morals, upon science, art, and religion. The detractors of America - and there are many of them in Europe - affirm without hesitation that the Americans are barbarians laden with gold; that they think only of making money, and that, in consequence of their riches, they lower the level of our ancient civilization and destroy its beautiful traditions by a crass materialism. Admirers of America on the contrary - and of these there are as many in Europe as there are detractors - will tell you that the New World is giving to the old a unique example of energy, activity, intelligence, and daring. Let Old Europe then give heed: beyond the Atlantic young rials are girding themselves with new weapons to dispute with her all the superiority of which she is so proud. What must one think of these two answers to the puzzle?

Let us begin with the reasoning of the detractors: 'Americans are barbarians laden with gold.' In order to simplify the discussion let us limit our examination to the United States, which is justly entitled to represent contemporary America with all its qualities and all its defects. It is not necessary to stay for a long time within the borders of the United States to convince one's self that the great republic is not at all a country where people think only of making money. A writer partial to paradox might well amuse himself with proving that the Americans are more idealistic than the Europeans, or even that they are a mystical people. Any one who cares to find arguments to establish this thesis may well be embarrassed by their number. For instance, would a people which despised the higher activities of the mind have been able to create the philosophical doctrine which is popularly known to us under the name of 'Pragmatism'? The pragmatist affirms that all ideas capable of rendering useful services are true. He takes utility as his standard of the measure of truth. This theory has seemed to many writers of the Old World a decisive proof of the practical mind of the American people who never forget their material interests even in metaphysical questions. But this is a mistake. Pragmatism does not propose to subordinate the ideal to practical interest. Its purpose is to reconcile opposing doctrines by proving that all ideas, even those which seem mutually exclusive, can help us to become wiser, stronger, better. What service is there then in struggling to make one idea triumph over another instead of allowing men to draw from each idea the good which each can yield. In a word, Pragmatism, as America has conceived it, is a mighty effort to give the right of expression in modern civilization to all religious and philosophical doctrines which in the past have reddened the world with their sanguinary struggles. A beautiful doctrine this, which may lend itself to many objections; but true or false, it proves that the people who have conceived it, far from despising the ideal, have such respect for all ideas and all beliefs, that they have not the courage to repel a single one. Such a people wishes to learn all and understand all.

Another proof of this same characteristic is furnished by American universities. Europeans have all heard descriptions of these great American universities, Harvard and Columbia, for example. They are true learned cities, with vast and splendid buildings, gardens, pavilions, laboratories, museums, libraries, athletic fields for physical exercises, pools where students can go to swim. They are enormously rich and, at the same time, always in dire straits. How can that be? Because no specialty or smallest perfection is allowed to be lacking. All the languages and the literatures of the world which have reached any degree of importance, all the histories, all the philological sciences, - judicial, social, moral, physical, natural, - all mathematics and philosophies, are taught there by hundreds of professors. And private citizens of the rich classes, bankers, manufacturers, merchants, have in a great degree met from their private purses the steadily growing needs of the universities.

There is the same tendency in art. That American cities are ugly, I willingly admit. It would need much courage, no doubt, to brand this affirmation as false, but it would also be unjust to deny that America is making mighty efforts to beautiful them. All the schools of architecture in Europe, especially that in Paris, are full of Americans hard at work. The sums which cities, states, banks, insurance companies, universities, railroads, have spent to beautiful their magnificent edifices is fabulous. All these buildings are not masterpieces by a wide margin, but there are many which are very beautiful. America has architects of indisputable worth. In Europe, men like to repeat that Americans buy at extravagant prices objects of ancient art, or things that pass for such, not distinguishing those which are beautiful and ancient from those which are inferior and counterfeit. But those who have seen something of the houses of rich Americans know that, although there are snobs and dupes in America, as everywhere else, there are also people who know the meaning of art, who know how to buy beautiful things and who search the world over for them. You will find in the streets of New York every variety of architecture, just as you find in its libraries all the literatures of the world, and in its theatres all the music, and in its houses all the decorative arts.

'The barbarian laden with gold' is then a legendary personage, but it is not at all surprising that such conception should exist. Modern society is organized in such fashion that it is impossible even to conceive of a people at once rich and ignorant. Industry, business, agriculture, demand nowadays very special technical knowledge, and a very complete social organization; that is to say, they imply a scientific, political, and judicial civilization of a reasonably high order. Thus America is not at all uninterested in the higher activities of the mind. It would be more just to say that as a nation, and without regard to individual instances, she interests herself in such activities less than in industry, in business and in agriculture. But is not this also the case with Europe? Who would dare affirm that the progress of the arts and sciences and letters is at this moment the principal concern of the governments and the influential classes of the Old World? We Europeans have only to listen to what people are saying round about us. Their talk is all of bringing the cultivation of the land to economic perfection, of opening coal and iron mines, of harnessing waterfalls, of developing industries, of increasing exports. Kings who rule 'by the grace of God' publicly declare that nothing interests them so much as the business of their countries!

If all this were characteristic only of American barbarism, we should be obliged to admit that Europe is Americanizing herself with disconcerting rapidity. But this economic effort of Europe in turn has nothing about it that need surprise us: like the American development, it is only the dizzy acceleration of a vast historic movement whose beginnings go back to the far distant day when an obscure and obstinate Genoese set sail, and in the midst of the waters of the Atlantic crossed the impassable boundary of the Old World. Yes, before that day Europe had create admirable arts and literatures, profound philosophies, consoling religions, lofty morals, wise systems of justice, but - she was poor. She produced little, and produced it slowly; she had deified tradition and authority; she had fettered human energy by a multitude of laws, precepts and prejudices. To humble men's pride she kept repeating to them that they were feeble and corrupt creatures. She taught them to use Virgil's beautiful figure that they were like 'A rower who painfully forces his boat against the current of the stream. Evil be on his head if for one instant he forgets and ceases to struggle against his current's force; in that moment he is lost, the flood sweeps away his fragile boat.'

But one fine day Europe discovered a vast 'continent' in the midst of the ocean. Then it dawned upon her that Prometheus had been but a clumsy thief, for he had only stolen a tiny spark of fire; she discovered mines, coal, and electricity. She created the steam-engine and all the other machines which have been derived from it. She succeeded in multiplying riches with a rapidity unimagined by remoter ancestors. From that moment man no longer contented himself with dreaming of the Promised Land. He wished to go there. He destroyed all the traditions, the laws, and institutions which place limitations upon the store of human energy. He learned to work swiftly. At a single stroke he conquered liberty and riches, and he conceived the idea of progress. If America seems to-day to symbolize this movement which has turned the world topsy-turvy, the movement was derived from Europe. After having conceived the idea of such a revolution, could Europe remain untouched by it?


It would appear then that the riddle of America is very simple. The answer contains nothing to make us uneasy. The riches of the New World threaten no catastrophe to the noblest traditions of our civilization. For New York's wealth is only a part of the riches produced in the same economic development in the two worlds. The ultimate development of these mighty riches might be merely a general advance, both material and ideal, of Europe and America. Rich and prosperous Americans might try to assimilate the culture of Europe, and on her part Europe might seek to equal America in her effort to increase her riches. But a historian of antiquity who returns from America cannot share this optimism. In the lap of modern civilization there are twin worlds struggling with each other for leadership. But these two worlds are not, as people are apt to think, Europe and America. Their names are Quality and Quantity.

The civilizations from which our own is sprung were poor indeed. They set limits to their desires, their ambitions, their spirit of initiative, their audacity, their originality. They brought forth slowly, and a little at a time, and suffered continuously from the insufficiency of their material resources. They looked upon the amassing of wealth merely as a painful necessity; but in all things they sought to attain the difficult model of perfection, whether in art, or in literature, or in the worlds of morality and religion. The aristocratic character of almost all the industries of the past, the importance which was formerly bestowed on the decorative arts and on all questions of personal morality, ceremonial, and form, - these are all proofs of it. It was Quality not Quantity which carried our forefathers forward. All the limitations to which these civilizations were subject, so astonishing to us to-day, were only the necessary cost of these perfections which men once so ardently desired. We have turned the world our ancestors lived in upside down. We have made the multiplication of riches our goal. We have won liberty, but we have been obliged to abandon almost all the ancient ideals of perfection, sacrificing Quality in everything.

How many of the difficulties which torture this brilliant period of ours so cruelly are the result of this duel between Quality and Quantity! Look, for example, at the present crisis in the study of the classics. Why did men formerly study Homer and Cicero with passionate zeal? Because in those days the great Greek and Latin writers were the models of that literary perfection so greatly admired by the influential classes, which was not merely an ornament of the mind. The attainment of perfection often carried with it the admiration of the public, fame, sometimes even glory and high rank. But in this last century these models have lost much of their prestige, either on account of the multitude of literatures which have come to be known and liked, or because they have proved troublesome to a period compelled to write too much and too quickly. Just imagine a candidate for the presidency of the United States who should pronounce ten or fifteen long orations daily and who should in each discourse show himself the perfect orator after the rules of Cicero or Quintilian! The day in which classical culture ceased to be an official school of literary taste, on that day it was condemned to die; and scientific philology, which we have sought to set up in its place, can only serve to bury its corpse. No longer models for posterity, the ancient authors have become books like any others, less interesting for the majority of readers than the works of modern literatures.

It is the fashion nowadays to discuss the crisis which threatens all the arts. We must, however, remember to preserve a distinction. We must divide the arts into two categories: those which serve to amuse men by helping them to pass the time agreeably, like music, the theatre, and, to a certain degree, literature; and those which serve to beauty the world, like architecture, sculpture, painting, and all the decorative arts. It is patent that the crisis which we are considering is much more serious among the arts within the second category. No epoch has spent so much money to beautify the world as ours; no age has supported so formidable an army of architects, sculptors, decorators, and cabinet-makers; no age has built to many cities, palaces, monuments, bridges, plazas, and gardens in the midst of lavish plenty, why are we so discontented with the results obtained: why have no Americans, in spite of the enormous sums which they have spent to beautify their cities, succeeded in building a St. Mark's or a Notre Dame? They have all the materials, - money, artists, the desire to create beautiful things. What then do they leack? They lack one single thing - Time.

One day in New York I was complimenting an example of American architecture to an American architect of great talent. 'Yes, yes,' he answered with a touch of satire, 'my fellow countryment would willingly spend a hundred millions of dollars to build a church as beautiful as St. Mark's in Venice, but they would command me, as a condition of the work, to finish it within eighteen months.'

That is a significant phrase. How is it possible to beautify a world which is incessantly in transformation, where in nothing is stable, and which wishes to multiply everything it possesses - buildings, as it would furniture? To create beautiful palaces, to construct beautiful furniture, to attain the distant ideal of perfection, time is essential, - time and wise deliberation, reasonable limitation of the multiplicity of human demands, and a certain stability in taste. No one could have built St. Mark's or Notre Dame in eighteen months, and France could not have created her famous decorative styles of the eighteenth century if public taste had been so fickle as ours, and if everybody at that time had wished to change his furniture every ten years.

But the crisis in classical studies and that in the decorative arts are still relatively slight in comparison to the general intellectual and moral confusion wherein the doctrine of quantity has plunged men's minds, substituting a standard of amount in place of the traditional standard of quality. If my phrase is obscure, examples may possibly throw light on what I say. We all know, for instance, that in recent years the citizens of the United States have waged a bitter campaign against the trusts, the great banks, the railroads, and insurance companies; in fact, against all the vast powers of money. In newspaper articles, in public speeches, and in whole volumes filled with accusations, these trusts have been charged with being centres of corruption, instruments of a new despotism not less odious than the political despotism of old. They are decried as scandalous conspiracies to despoil honest men of the legitimate fruits of their labor. The campaign has penetrated to the very heart of the nation; but in the face of the enormous indignation of the masses, there have been marshaled both in America and Europe the Olympian calm of economists and men of great affairs who have denounced this movement of protest as a return to mediæval ideas, and who in the face of a vast outcry have paid enthusiastic homage to modern finance, its enormous enterprises, and tremendous organizations. How can there be so vast a difference of opinion in an age so intelligent and educated as ours? Is half the world struck blind to-day, and is sight given to the other half alone? No, there is neither incurable blindness, nor is sight vouchsafed only to a few. The sole reason for the confusion is that men employ different standards in measuring the same thing, and for this reason find it impossible to understand each other. If one admits the quantitative standard, if one grants that the supreme object of life is to produce an enormous pile of riches as rapidly as possible, the economists are right. The injustices and cruelties denounced by the adversaries of high finances are merely negligible inconveniences in a régime of economic liberty of which the modern world is naturally proud, for it is to this liberty that the modern world owes most of its wealth. yes we must remember that the idea of leaving the wages of each individual to be determined by the blind play of ecocnomic forces has been foreign to all the civilizations from which ours has sprung. They have always sought to correct the principles of business in order to keep them in accord with the principles of charity and justice. To carry out this policy they have no even hesitated to limit the development of industry and business, for example, by forbidding interest on money. Former ages have subordinated economic development to an ideal of moral perfection; they have placed quality above quantity; but if one applies the standard of qualitative measure to the modern world, it is these detractors of high finance who have the right on their side. Many methods employed by modern finance, useful as they are from an economic point of view, are for this reason none the less repugnant to a moral and slightly sensitive conscience. Detractors and defenders may dispute to the end of time. They will never understand each other, for they start from different premises which never can be reconciled to each other.

It is this continual confusion between the standards of quantitative measures and qualitative standards which prevents the modern world from steering a true course amid the gravest moral questions. Take, for example, the question of progress. Is there an idea more popular to-day, or a word more often repeated, than 'progress'? And yet if to every person who pronounces this word we were to put the question, 'What do you mean by progress?' few indeed would be able to answer with precision. There is a thing stranger yet. In this century of progress the whole world deplores ten times a day the decadence of all things. How can we explain such confusion as this? The answer is simply that the same act may be judged as a phenomenon of progress or of decadence, according as one looks at it from the point of view of Quality or of Quantity. Set an architect and a locomotive-builder to disputing on the modern world. The first will maintain that the world is reverting to barbarism because it multiplies cities, and hastily and hideously constructed villages without being able to create a single one of those marvelous monuments which are the glory of the Middle Ages. The second will reply that the world moves forward, because the population, number, and size, of the cities, the amount of cultivated land, the extension of railroads, increase without cessation. The interlocutors will never come to understand each other, just as two men who look at the world with spectacles of different colors can never agree on the color of the world. The riddle of America, which for some time past has bothered Europe so much, is merely another example of this permanent confusion of standards which characterizes the age we live in.


America is neither the monstrous country where men think solely of making money, nor the country of marvels boasted by her admirers. It is the country where the principles of Quantity, become so powerful during the last one hundred and fifty years, have achieved their most extraordinary triumph. An active, energetic, vigorous nation has found itself mast of an enormous territory, portions of which were very fertile and others very rich in mines and forests, at the very moment when our civilization finally invented the machine which makes possible the exploitation of vast countries and the swift creation of wealth: the steam engine.

Less cumbered by old traditions than the elder nations, and with a vast continent in front of her, America has marched along the new roads of history with a rapidity and an energy for which there is no precedent. Ten, fifteen, thirty times in a single century she has multiplied her population, her cities, and all the wealth coveted by man. She has created in careless and prodigal profusion a society which has subordinated all former ideas of perfection to a new ideal: ever building on a grander scale and ever building more swiftly. No, it is not true that America is indifferent to the higher activities of mind, but the effort which she spends upon the arts and sciences is, and will long remain, subordinate to the great historic task of the United States, the intensive cultivation of their huge continent. Intellectual things will remain subordinate, although very many Americans of the upper classes would wish that it were otherwise.

In just the same way, it is not exact to say that, in contrast to American barbarism, Europe reaps the harvest of civilization; just as it would be unfair to say that the Old World is done for, exhausted by its petrifying, inevitable routine. The ancient societies of Europe have likewise entered into the quantitative phase of civilization. The new devil has got hold of them also. In Europe as well as in America the masses of people long for a more comfortable existence, public and private expenses pile up with bewildering speed. Thus in the Old World also the production of wealth must be increased, but this enterprise is far more difficult in Europe than in America. The population of Europe is much more dense than in the New World: a portion of its lands is exhausted: the great number of political subdivisions, and the multiplicity of tongues, increase enormously the difficulties in the way of business of a great scale. Traditions handed down from the time when men toiled to produce slowly and in small quantities things shaped toward a far-distant ideal of perfection are still strong among its people. Europe then has the advantage over America in the higher activities of the mind, but she cannot help being more timid, more slow, and more limited in her economic enterprises. America and Europe may each be judged superior or inferior to the other according as the critic takes for his standard the criteria of Quality or of Quantity. If a civilization grows toward perfection in proportion to the rapidity with which she produces riches, America is the model to be followed; if, on the contrary, perfection is expressed by the measure of the higher activities of the spirit, Europe leads the way.


The riddle then seems solved, but the reader may object that it is solved only by admitting that we dwell in a perpetual condition of misunderstanding; that the Modern World is a sort of Tower of Babel where men speak a tongue which others cannot understand. If it were only to bring back this agreeable news that the historian of antiquity has made two voyages to America, he might better perhaps have spared himself the trouble! Such might well be the conclusion of this long argument! Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the Modern World demands two contradictory things, speed and perfection. We wish to conquer the earth and its treasures with all possible haste. To this end we have created tremendous machinery and have uncovered new forces in nature. It is a huge task, no doubt, but to accomplish it we must renounce almost all the artistic and moral perfections which used to be at once the torment and joy and pride of our forefathers. It is a painful necessity indeed, against which our age revolts, and from which it seeks in vain every possible channel of escape.

Let us strip off the last shred of illusion. Deterioration must ever continue among the ideals of perfection which our ancestors worshiped, so long as population multiplies and the demands and aspirations of all classes, as well as all expenses, public and private, continue to increase on the scale and with the momentum with which they are increasing at this moment. Even if this formidable revolution should slacken a trifle, the ideal of Quantity must spread its empire over the earth, morality and beauty must of necessity be subordinated to the prime necessities of constructing machines ever increasing in speed and power, and of expanding cultivated land, and of working new mines. Art, like industry, agriculture, like literature, will be compelled to increase their product to the continuous deterioration of their quality, and our secret discontent will grow in proportion as our triumphs increase. Unable ourselves to decide between Quality and Quantity, we shall never know whether the great drama of the world which we are looking at is a marvelous epoch of progress or a melancholy tragedy of decadence.

From this singular situation there is only one possible way of escape; a method which has no precedent in the world's history. But it is that very method which men will not hear spoken of. It would be absolutely essential to create a movement of public opinion through religious, political or moral means, which should impose upon the world a reasonable limit to its desires. To the age in which we live it seems impossible to express an idea which seems more absurd than this. The material situation of every one of us is to-day bound up with this formidable movement which drives men ceaselessly to increase the making and spending of wealth. Think what an economic crisis there would be if this movement were to slow down. All the moralities which have governed the world down to the French Revolution forced upon men the belief that they would grow more perfect as they grew simpler. When religion and custom were not sufficient to teach them to set limits to their needs and desires, then these old moralities had recourse to sumptuary laws. In direct contrast to this, the nineteenth century affirms that man grows more perfect in proportion as he produces and consumes. So confusing are the definitions of legitimate desires and vices, of reasonable expenses and inordinate luxury, that in this century it is almost impossible to tell one from the other.

A vast revolution has been brought into being, the greatest, perhaps, which history can show; but if the new principles which our century has borne to the front should be developed until they insured the ultimate and supreme triumph of quantity, would it be possible to escape what would amount to the demolition of the whole fabric of the glorious civilization bequeathed to us by the centuries: religious doctrines and the principles upon which morality is based, as well as all the traditions of the art?

History knows better than we the dusky roads of the future, and it is idle for us to wish to see the way along them; but in spite of our ignorance of the future, we have duties toward the past and toward ourselves, and is it not one of these duties to call the attention of our generation to the possibility of this catastrophe, even if our generation likes to turn its face away from it? Very often during my travels in America I sued to ask myself whether men of various intellectual interests might not find in this duty something to strengthen their conscience for the part which they must play in the world.

If we disregard medicine which aims to cure our bodily ills, those sciences which are concerned with discoveries useful to industry, and those arts which entertain the public, all other branches of intellectual activity are to-day in dire confusion. Is there a pious clergyman who has not asked himself in moments of discouragement what good it is to preach the virtues of the Christian faith in a century whose dynamic power springs from an exaltation of pride and an emancipation of passion which amount almost to delirium? What intelligent historian is there who does not now and then ask himself why he persists in telling over again the events of the past to a generation which no longer looks ahead, and which rushes violently on the future, head down, like a bull? What philosopher is there who, as he pursues his transcendental preoccupation, does not feel himself sometimes hopelessly adrift like a being fallen from another planet upon this earth in an age which no longer is passionately interested in anything except economic reality? What artist is there who seeks not only to make money, but to reach the perfection of his ideal, who has not cursed a thousand times this frenzied hurly-burly in the midst of which we live?

From time to time, it is true, there seems to be a genuine revival of the ancient ideal; men suddenly appear who seem to interest themselves afresh in the progress of religion, in the future of morality, in the history of the past, in the problems of metaphysics, in the artistic records of civilizations long since dead. But these are only passing phenomena, and they are not enduring enough to give artists and philosophers the definite consciousness of playing a well-thought-out and useful part.

If all intellectual activities of to-day tend to become either lucrative professions or government careers, it is because nowadays such careers aim either at money or social position, and no longer find their end in the careers themselves. And yet - how many times as he traveled across the wildernesses of the two Americas watching all day fields of wheat and rye, or plantations of maize or coffee, extending to the very edge of the solitary horizon, how many times has the historian of antiquity brooded over those fragments of marble wrought by the Greeks in such perfection, which we admire in our museums, and pondered upon the fragments of the great Roman system of jurisprudence preserved in the 'Corpus juris.' Did not the Greeks and Romans succeed in reaching this marvelous perfection in the arts and laws because there came a time when they were willing to cease extending the limits of their empire over the earth and all the treasures it contains? Have we not conquered vast deserts with our railroads just because we have been able to renounce almost all the artistic and moral perfections which were the glory of the ancients?

In the light of this idea the historian felt that he had come to understand ancient civilizations and our own all the better, and that his eyes were able to pierce more deeply into the shadowy depths of human destiny. A civilization which pursues its desire for perfection beyond a certain limit ends by exhausting its energy in the pursuit of an object at once too narrow and impossible of attainment. On the other hand a civilization which allows itself to be intoxicated by the madness of mere size, by speed, by quantity, is destined to end in a new type of crass and violent barbarism. But the point where these two opposing forces of life find their most perfect equilibrium changes continually from age to age; and any epoch approaches more or less near this point according to the degree of activity of the two forces struggling within it. The artist, the priest, the historian, the philosopher, in moments of discouragement, when they feel themselves assailed by the temptation to think only of a career or of money, may well find new strength in the idea that each of them is working in his different way to preserve an idea of perfection in men's souls, - it may be a perfection of art or of morality of the intellect or of the spirit. Let them remember that this ideal, limited as it may seem, serves as a dyke to prevent our civilization from being engulfed in an overwhelming flood of riches and from sinking in an orgy of brutality. This task is so great and so noble that those who strive for it ought surely to feel that they do not live in vain.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.